First Draft

Prohibition and Greenwich Village

Greenwich Village witnessed an interesting era in the 1920s with the rise of Bohemianism, an influx of immigrants, the suffrage movement and Prohibition. The latter had a particularly sharp impact on the Village as many groups were outraged by the ban on alcohol, viewing it as an assault on their character and culture.

Immigrant communities in Greenwich Village saw Prohibition as an attack on them personally. David Lerner, author of Dry Manhattan, states, “the Eighteenth Amendment meant much more than just a ban on alcohol. It was an assault on their ethnic traditions, a blatant example of class-based paternalism, and an imposition on the daily rhythm of city life.1

The Village was one of the most diverse areas of the city. It consisted of many ethnic groups such as Italians, Irish and Jews. For these groups, especially the Irish and Italians, it was part of their culture to drink.2

When prohibition was passed, many of the Irish social clubs that were prominent in Greenwich Village disappeared. These clubs fostered ethnic community beyond just drinking. They allowed political engagement, fostered community support, and drew Irish people together in their new country.3

Drinking was part of Italian culture at the time as well. Many families had wine with dinner and the men enjoyed having a drink after a long day at work. Both of these ethnic groups saw prohibition as an offshoot of the Nativist and anti-Catholic movement that was quickly gaining momentum at the time. The temperance movement, made up mainly of Anglo-Saxon Protestants, saw the diversity of New York City as a threat to Prohibition. The movement took on a very racist and anti-Catholic tone. The members of the anti-saloon movement used to refer to the Italians as Dagos and the Irish as filthy drunks. This is why so many immigrant communities in Greenwich Village saw the temperance movement as a way of “policing ethnic groups.”4

The temperance movement was not only considered racist, but was also construed as classist. Many of the saloon owners and brewery workers were working class and when the 18th amendment was passed, many of these workers lost their jobs. Mariea Caudill Dennison’s states in her piece McSorley’s: John Sloan’s Visual Commentary on Male Bonding, Prohibition, and the Working Class, that “Many poor and working class drinkers resented the ban of alcohol sales and production, which they believed was being imposed on them by the upper classes. It was widely held that the rich had filled their cellars with liquor before the advent of prohibition and continued to drink in both private and public.”5

The working class felt as though they had the right to drink openly at a bar like McSorley’s, the quintessential workingman’s bar located at 15 East 7th st. in the East Village, just as much as the rich had a right to drink in their apartments. Interestingly enough, the Irish in the Village fought against the 18th amendments so much that McSorley’s never stopped serving beer during the prohibition years.
Another major way in which Greenwich Village residents rebelled against Prohibition was through pharmacies. Drug stores were the only places people could obtain any type of alcohol and between 1920-1933, more pharmacies opened in the Village than ever before.6

The pharmacist learned how to adapt to its new type of customer and as a result these drug stores became very profitable and a major staple of the Prohibition era. They were perfect fronts for bootleggers.7

Perhaps the most iconic image of Prohibition was the speakeasy, another form of rebellion against Prohibition. Speakeasies seemed to spring up immediately after the 18th amendment was passed. In fact, many art studios were converted into speakeasies.8

Speakeasies devised ways to dupe the prohibition agents, and one of the most effective methods was to change the name and location of the establishment. The Redhead, one of the most famous of the New York speakeasies, began in Greenwich Village in 1922, moved uptown to became the Puncheon Club (and the Grotto, the Iron Gate, “42,” Jack and Charlie’s) and ultimately the 21 Club. Founders Jack Kriendler and Charlie Berns were so good at subverting the authorities that they were only caught once during their ten years years running speakeasies.9

Other Greenwich Village establishments circumvented prohibition laws with varying degrees of openness. By 1930 every Italian grocery or delicatessen in the Village sold wine or liquor and in many ways it became a reputable industry.10

Indeed, in many ways speakeasies ended up stimulating the local economy. Caroline Ware, author of Greenwich Village: 1920-1930, believes that the liquor business became the “chief new source of employment or income for residents of the area.”11

She further maintains that that bootlegging became the principle industry of the Village.12

With bootlegging came political power, social status and of course money. Many teens in Greenwich Village earned up to $10 making night deliveries, while others acted as spotters whose job it was to look out for cops.13

The locals in Greenwich were successful in thwarting Prohibition by legitimizing the illegal liquor industry amongst themselves.

Ultimately, the residents of Greenwich Village were primarily interested in making a living and caring for their families. Though Prohibition may have been a hindrance, in the end the Village took an illegal trade and made it profitable for the community.

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